Apostles' worship

Several people have asked me to tell them about Church of the Apostles, Seattle, which I visted last weekend. I'll start with worship, the regular gathering of the COTA community, which concluded the day-long "learning party" last Saturday.

COTA embraces its Anglican-Lutheran "tribe" (their word), and the mass had a familiar order and flow -- but it was emphatically NOT the LBW or the Book of Common Prayer. Overall, there was a layering of music and a reconsideration of traditional elements to make them fit in their context that added a lot of meaning for me. On the practical side, the attention to flowing elements one into another is very engaging. When we moved for Communion, I caught a glimpse of the clock and realized that we had been going for an hour and I hadn't even noticed. That has not happened to me for a long time.

A labyrinth was laid out in the center of the floor, with the altar at the center. Early arrivers had a chance to enter the labyrinth; by service time a number of people were sprawled on pillows across it.

The team puts a lot of work into making liturgy engaging and participatory. For this service, 3 scripture lessons were used, but they were not just "read." Here's the flow:

OT lesson -- essentially a reader's theatre, with one visible character (a band member), a narrator at a mic out of site, and other members of the band reading other parts. And with music playing the entire time.

Psalmody -- Psalm 145 was broken into 4 sections, which were posted on large sheets of paper along the walls, with a pen hanging there. Community members were invited to move around, read one or more of them, and add their personal paraphrase of the text if they were so moved. This took place in about 7-8 minutes with music playing throughout. As people came together, Karen gathered the papers, placed them on the floor in front of the altar, and then read one paraphrase of each section -- a psalm composed by the community in worship. A true work of the people. There was a saxaphone solo during the meditation and reading.

There was a video meditation on U2's song, "Grace."

Gospel -- Ryan, the worship leader, came to the center and simply told the story of the workers in the vineyard.

For a response to the Word, there was what COTA calls "reverb," a chance for worshippers to turn to each other in small groups of 3 or 4 and respond to a few specific questions about the day's theme: Mercy: The Unfairness of God. The questions in this midrash asked if God is fair, and explored our reactions to the story.

I had the privilege of sitting next to a young couple, not churched, but visiting friends at COTA. It was cool to have a chance to listen to their perspectives -- that God is, of course, fair, and that work should be, too -- and to witness to my experience of how great it is that God is so much more than fair. It was a gift to be able to be allowed into the story of these folks, whom I'll likely not run into again, and to share my story. It modelled talking to each other about Scripture and life issues, which is foundational to a life of community discipleship.

That was the sermon. There was no "message" -- other than Scripture -- to set up the discussion and no reporting out about what we'd shared -- just a chance to do a little theology in community. According to Karen, more recognizable sermons are done every few weeks, and many times by people other than the pastor.

When the offering was taken, it was made clear that giving is a joyful choice, not an obligation, and it was acknowledged that giving to other causes in the world is as valid as giving to COTA. "Give as God calls you to give," the leader said, and while another basket did not go around, baskets for receiving "alms" were in the entrance way -- on a table in front of a huge globe with clear indication that these were gifts for hurricane relief.

Communion was preceded by a participatory ritual. Apparently some worshippers were given one or more grapes on their way in (I was not one of them). We were directed to a table in the back with several bowls of purple grapes and a french press, in which many grapes had already been mashed into juice. If we wanted, we could go to the table, take a grape, and press it into the juice as a way of symbolizing offering our life and work to God's purposes. There was also time here to meditate at the icons on the windowsills, or to light a candle at the cross icon, or pray at one of the large icons across the front of the space.

The assistants brought bread, wine and the french press of grape juice forward to the altar. The eucharistic prayer emphasized that while some had received many grapes and some just one, there was plenty for all in God's economy. The juice from the press was mixed with the wine and the grape juice in the chalices. People had the choice of intincting or taking the common cup. The prayer featured original band music underneath, building to allow the community to participate in the traditional responses in a way that fit with the ethos of the service and community.

Within the familiar structure of the rite, it was impressive how the participatory rituals and the intention to connect them with the eucharist made it easy to connect. There are a couple of things weaving through the service that I took away as emergent worship principles.

  • God was honored by helping people to participate in the story, not just telling them how to think about it.
  • There was ancient liturgy, but each piece appeared to be picked and re-appropriated to fit both the community and the theme of the day.
  • Though the band is up front and the worship is scripted to a point, the way Karen, Ryan, Lacey and the others lead made it feel like a community worshipping together, rather than a leader-run show.
  • There were times for people to have choices to move and meditate, and almost no time with the community being lectured to or hanging on one person.

Some elements of what COTA is doing -- original music, a dj playing after the service, the labyrinth and icons -- are authentic to who they are and who they serve, and might not translate to other settings. I think these learnings can be put to use anywhere we want to do good liturgy that can speak to young people and people outside the "churched" culture.

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